Research Findings on Sexual Dysfunction, Intimacy and Conflict in Heterosexual Couples

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I assumed researchers would conclude that intimacy and conflict are correlated to sexual dysfunction. Instead, I found a study from Australia that had opposite findings. The study from Australia
concluded that intimacy and sexuality scores explained only 20%-33% of the study’s variance, and the amount of variance was not as high as anticipated. However, the U.S. study found strong
correlations between unresolved conflict and sexual dysfunction. Both studies stressed that, “empirical studies of the causes of sexual dysfunction are rare” (Metz, Epstein, 139). In order to make
definitive conclusions based upon the patterns presented in their studies, “sexual dysfunction warrants systematic attention in assessment and intervention in sex therapy” (Metz, Epstein, 139). The
Australian study stated, “studies on the interrelationships between intimacy, relationship functioning, and sexuality should incorporate global measures of these constructs” (McCabe, 31). Given
that studies on sexual dysfunction and its causations are rare, these study's conclusions may not be definitive, and should be treated with some skepticism.

Submitted: April 19, 2011

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Submitted: April 19, 2011

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In the first Australian study, “The Interrelationship Between Intimacy, Relationship Functioning, and Sexuality Among Men and Women In Committed Relationships,” the participants were 137 males (mean age 33 years) and 102 females (mean age 30 years) who had been in a committed relationship of at least one year. Five categories of intimacy were assessed: emotional, social, sexual, intellectual and recreational. Two goals of the study were to see how the sexes compared in these categories, and to see which categories had the strongest correlations to sexual satisfaction. The bulk of the studies between relationship of marital satisfaction and sexual satisfaction indicates these two variables are strongly related in women (Hurlbert & Apt, 1994; Kumar & Dhyani; 1996, Apt, Hurlbert, Pierce, & White, 1996). One study did vary by showing a minority of women whose high levels of satisfaction were associated with only moderate levels of marital satisfaction (Apt et al., 1996). Henderson-King and Veroff (1994) found a strong association between marital and sexual satisfaction is more complicated than earlier studies would suggest, particularly in the first and third year of marriage. A third goal of the study was to assess the role of intimacy on sexual satisfaction.
 
Few empirical studies have examined the association between intimacy and sexual functioning. McCabe (1977) compared intimacy levels of sexually dysfunctional males and females to healthy participants. It was found that dysfunctional males and females both experienced less intimacy than the functional participants. However, intimacy was more important to females, whereas in males, most all types of intimacy had to be impaired before sexual dysfunction occurred. Acker & Davis (1992) found a strong relationship between intimacy, passion and commitment. Contreras, Hendrick & Hendrick, 199showed that passion is strongly associated with marital satisfaction, but a direct empirical connection could not be made. Reciprocal feelings of love and frequent and creative sex were associated with sexual satisfaction for both sexes (Haavio-Mannila and Kontula, 1997). Hally and Pollack (1993) also found a link between sexual variety and sexual satisfaction for both sexes. Females wanted to participate in sex that demonstrated love and intimacy, and males wanted to engage in sexual arousal.
 
The study utilized several testing instruments. “The Personal Assessment of Intimacy in Relationship Scale” (Schafer & Olson, 1981) contains 36 items which assess: emotional intimacy, social intimacy, sexual intimacy, intellectual intimacy, and recreational intimacy. “The Sexual Function Scale” (McCabe, 1998) assessed: general relationship, conflict, communication, sexual satisfaction, sexual behavior, desire to change physical contact, own attitude towards sex, partner’s attitude toward sex, sexual communication, sex outside relationship, own level of sexual dysfunction and partner’s level of sexual dysfunction. All participants mailed their responses anonymously.
 
This study found only two differences between males and females. Females reported higher levels of sexual intimacy than males. No gender differences were found in levels of conflict, communication or functioning of the relationship. There were no reported gender differences in sexual behaviors within the relationship, though males reported higher levels of sexual satisfaction, desired different sexual experiences, wanted to talk to their partners more about sex, reported more positive attitudes toward sex, rated their partner’s attitudes about sex lower than their own, and assigned a higher level of sexual dysfunction to their partners. These findings confirm past studies that show males place more emphasis on sex in a relationship than women (Patton & Warring, 1985; Rubin 1983). Both males and females believed sexual dysfunction is negatively correlated to sexual satisfaction, and females felt the level of emotional intimacy was important to sexual intimacy.
 
Past research has suggested there would be a strong relationship between intimacy and relationship quality, and sexual functioning. (Apt et al., 1996; Cupach & Comstock, 1990; Henderon-King & Veroff, 1994). However, the Australian study’s test showed only a 20-33% variance explained by intimacy and sexuality scores. Overall, this study’s findings only confirmed what past studies have shown: that men are more sexually conscious in committed relationships, and women more intimacy conscious. 
 
My second study from the U.S., “Assessing The Role of Relationship Conflict in Sexual Dysfunction,” shows empirical findings on the role of conflict and sexual dysfunction (Hartman, 1980a, 1980b; Heiman LoPiccolo, & LoPiccolo, 1981; Hof, 1987; Kaplan, 1974; McCarthy, 1998, 1999; Metz & Dwyer, 1993; Rosen & Leiblum, 1992). Disagreements are normal for couples, but how they resolve them are important. Healthy couples agree on behavior changes or agree to disagree when differences are unchangeable but acceptable. Couples who learn to adapt or who can be flexible experience greater relationship satisfaction. Bradbury and Fincham (1992) and Miller and Bradbury (1995) found that wives who made negative comments about their spouses were less supportive and more negative, and a spouse’s assumptions were associated with negative behavior towards each other. Conversely, couples with constructive suggestions and cooperation avoided destructive ways of attempting to resolve conflict (such as aggression and withdraw). The U.S. study also showed women tend to be verbally demanding in a conflict, and men respond by avoiding her demands and withdrawing.
 
Sources of sexual dysfunction are different for men than women. In a survey of 789 men and 979 women conducted by Dunn, Croft, and Hackett (1999), sexual problems among men were often due to anxiety and medical issues. For women, sexual dysfunction was due to marital problems. In a comparison of 36 sex therapy couples to 36 volunteer couples, the sexually dysfunctional couples had more communication and conflict resolution problems than did the controls (Chesney, Blakeney, Chan, and Cole, 1981). The sexually dysfunctional couples were noticeable distressed, and had difficulty with problem-solving communication. However, some couples seem to be able to “compartmentalize” their sexual dysfunction so they maintain a satisfactory relationship (Hartman, 1980a, 1980b). When in sex therapy, couples manifested “avoidant” male behavior and “engaging” female behavior. Men with dysfunction avoided conflicand were hypersensitive to criticism. Women were verbally critical. When dysfunctional couples are able to resolve their problems, “positive, constructive relationship conflict may produce an affirmation of the couple’s intimate bond, and serve as a sexual aphrodisiac" (Metz, Epstein, 149).
 
What are some common themes in dysfunctional relationships?  “Common meanings underlying discord include feeling devalued, abandoned or rejected, isolated, blocked in one’s attempt to achieve personal goals and a struggle for power or control” (Metz, Epstein, 152). Couples who are experiencing such conflicts are likely to benefit from basic skills in positive conflict resolution. Unresolved relationship conflict may cause sexual dysfunction, or sexual dysfunction may cause negative relationship conflict.
 
Conflict is really an opportunity in disguise; it is an opportunity for greater emotional and sexual intimacy. It may even act as an emotional aphrodisiac, because when positively resolved, partners feel close and happy about each other. Constructive conflict resolution encourages emotional intimacy. In sex therapy, conflict-resolution must be a priority as it is the “window” through which the therapist can treat the sexual problem.

In conclusion, in the first Australian study, I learned that men are generally more sexually amorous

than women, and women are generally more concerned with achieving intimacy than are men. It is

difficult to believe that only two differences were shown between the sexes. They claim no

differences were found in levels of conflict and communication. They also claim only a small

percentage of their responses could be linked to sexual dysfunction. They don’t seem to have

made any new discoveries; they merely confirmed the past studies. However, in the second U.S.

study, they hypothesized that conflict would directly cause sexual dysfunction and made their

case by including past empirical studies. They illustrated how males and females differ in their

responses towards conflict and how male and female sexual dysfunction is different. I feel this

study delivered solid, convincing proof that males and females relate to sexuality, conflict and

sexual dysfunction differently.


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